Are Soy Products Good for You?
Finding the healthiest alternatives to foods we love can be frustrating these days. When we want to cut back on fat, we buy fat-free products but realize the fat is just replaced with extra sugar to make up for lack of taste. Sugar-free products are loaded with artificial sugar substitutes, which are probably even worse for our health. When the search gets too difficult, most people go back to their old high sugar and high-fat diets because it is easier. With the attention on certain foods such as gluten, dairy, and animal products, more and more people are heading in the direction of veganism and gluten-free diets. The problem with these diets is that people end up substituting the protein and grains for processed types that only do more harm to their health in general.
What is “Good” Protein?
The answer to this question depends on who is asking. For those who are open to eating any type of food, it is important to choose protein sources that are organic and free from additives. Cattle, pork, and chickens, for example, are oftentimes fed a hearty diet of processed grains and leftover products in order to get as big and fat as possible so that farms can produce more meat. This is obviously not the best option for someone trying to keep his or her body healthy. Opt for grass-fed beef and proteins from animals that were not injected with any antibiotics or hormones.
As far as vegans and vegetarians are asking about healthy protein sources, the options are more limited of course. Sticking solely to beans, vegetables, and grains may not be enough to satisfy most people, especially athletes burning hundreds of calories every day. Protein powders are great ways to add in extra servings but it is important to check labels to see where the protein is actually coming from. Some examples of protein substitutes are pea protein and soy protein. Many vegan products on the shelves at supermarkets are made with these alternatives as well.
Soybeans originated in Asia, but are consumed all around the world, and in heavy quantities here in America. You may be familiar with their young form, edamame, commonly offered at Asian restaurants. A large percentage of soybeans, about 90%, are genetically modified in the United States. Soy is commonly used in meat and dairy substitutes, milk, and tofu, but unfortunately is processed in order to make these products. Soybean oil is a common additive to many foods and is made by extracting the fat from the soybeans. The leftover soy, called soybean meal, is often times fed to cattle to assist with bulking up and used to make soy protein isolate, which is what makes up most of the vegan protein powders on the market.
A Nutritional Additive (Sort Of)
Whole soybeans actually have quite a high nutritional value. They contain several vitamins and minerals including potassium, magnesium, calcium, manganese, vitamin B6, and iron, among others. The only issue with the nutrient content is that soybeans also contain phytates which are substances that reduce the absorption power. There are about 17 grams of protein and 6 grams of fiber in about 3.5 ounces of whole soybeans as well. Soybeans have one of the highest protein contents of all other plant proteins but are nutritionally not as good as animal protein sources. Keep in mind that this nutritional content is only true for whole soybeans, whereas the soy you find in food products such as soy protein and soybean oil lack all of these nutrients.
Soy’s Health Benefits
Research is on the rise regarding soy since more people are becoming vegan or vegetarian and are consuming high amounts of this substitute. Some studies have shown that soy protein can help lower the bad cholesterol (LDL) in the body. These studies have not concluded whether soy can actually reduce the risk of heart disease. Another result of the health studies on soy have shown that it may also reduce the risk of prostate cancer in the older population.
Soy has also been shown to increase estrogen activity in the body and is used in medications for relieving symptoms of menopause. This is due to a substance called isoflavones that activate estrogen receptors in the body. These same isoflavones have also been shown to reduce bone loss after menopause. The downside of soy used in these medications and in food products is that studies have also shown a disruption in the menstrual cycle and controversial conclusions on the risk of breast cancer in women.
Since many studies have been observational studies or have been sponsored by the soy industry itself, it is hard to tell whether we should be consuming it or not. There is no conclusive evidence that indicates consuming moderate amounts of soy is harmful to adults. Researchers do report that women who are pregnant, planning on becoming pregnant, or are breastfeeding should limit their consumption of soy due to the hormonal side effects. It is best to keep in mind that processed foods should always be limited and the healthiest form of food is in its most natural state.